From the growth of Amazon Publishing to the continued rise of e-books, the winds of change are sweeping through the publishing industry. But some things remain the same—for instance, the power of strong voice, genuine characters, and a certain je ne sais quoi, which draws agents to an author’s work.
That was the message delivered by a panel of three agents who spoke before an eager crowd, largely made up of writers and illustrators, at the Anthroposophical Society in Manhattan on February 7. The panelists were Erica Rand Silverman of Sterling Lord Literistic, Rebecca Sherman of Writers House, and Edward Necarsulmer IV of McIntosh & Otis. The event, part of the ongoing Tuesday Professional lecture series sponsored by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, was moderated by Pat Weissner of the SCBWI.
The agents launched the discussion by describing their agencies and the types of work that they are specifically seeking.
Representing picture book, middle grade, and young adult authors, as well as literary estates, Necarsulmer expressed that he’s currently seeking work that feels brand-new: “familiar is the devil,” he said. He added that he is intrigued to read work that finds creative ways to combine the paranormal genre with more realistic contemporary fiction.
Silverman, who represents authors Celeste Conway and Eric Kahn Gale (among others), joked, “I want something that’s really good.” She added that she looks for “characters I would like to spend time with,” and noted her fondness for mysteries and realistic fiction.
Sherman, whose clients include Grace Lin and David Ezra Stein, reported that she tends to “fall hardest for middle grade.” Admitting that she’s not a fan of “high” genres, she seeks work that contains a “unique voice,” and that possesses an “intangible something.” She also said she is “not afraid” of books that cross genres, when they do so successfully.
The panel reflected on how changes to the industry have necessitated that agents narrow their focus and accept fewer clients, with Necarsulmer citing the loss of Borders as a big blow, calling it “an enormous bummer.” He added that an author's work "has to stand out in a larger way” in order to be considered in a more “bottom-line focused” industry.
Sherman referenced recent rumors about Amazon opening a bookstore in Seattle, suggesting that having an agent is more important than ever, because agents can navigate the constantly changing landscape of the publishing world. “It’s an agent’s job to notice the changes in the business,” she said.
Despite blows like the loss of Borders, the panel focused on the positive aspects of a rapidly transforming publishing field. “It changes every day,” said Silverman. “We’re beginning to look at content in new ways.” She reinforced that agents are being “more picky and selective” when it comes to selecting clients.
Necarsulmer noted that it’s not all gloom and doom for an industry that is broadening to include multimedia. He compared e-books to paperbacks in the sense that they have the potential to change authors into “rock stars,” bringing content in a new format to millions of enthusiastic readers. He referenced the prodigious electronic sales of The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo as an example. (As a side note, he added that authors “have always been rock stars to me.”)
On the topic of Amazon Publishing, the panelists tentatively discussed developing relationships with the newly formed venture. “It’s all very new,” said Silverman. “It’s going to be a different publishing experience.” She added that personal prejudice should never dictate an agent’s decision to place a client’s book where it best belongs.
Weissner asked the panel about what types of children’s and YA books are selling best, to which Necarsulmer responded, “That’s not a helpful question.” He elaborated by suggesting that writers don’t necessarily benefit from thinking about what specific kinds of books are selling at a given moment. A better question, he speculated, might be not “what” is selling, but “why.” For example, writers might want to think about why a phenomenon like the Twilight series holds such a powerful draw for readers.
Sherman agreed with Necarsulmer’s assessment, adding that while dystopian literature might be selling now, it can be counterproductive to speculate on what the next trend might be. Her suggestions to the authors in the audience: “Write what you were meant to write.” She also noted that books that follow on the heels of popular trends often don’t have the “staying power” of titles that might tap into more timeless human experiences.
The agents agreed that having a hook is a shared characteristic among the books that they represent. Silverman mentioned Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back as a book that combines a hook with a minimal amount of text to tell the story. “Long story books are a harder sell,” she noted. Necarsulmer mentioned Jane Yolen and Mark Teague’s long-running How Do Dinosaurs...? series as an example of books with an effective hook.
To the authors in the audience, Silverman emphasized the importance of “understanding what it is you have,” or really knowing your work. “Being able to synthesize what your book is succinctly,” she said, “is invaluable. But she also added that it’s the agent’s job to worry about how to categorize a book. “It’s exciting to have something that doesn’t fit neatly” into a particular genre, even if it might result in a harder sell to publishers, she said.
Questions from the audience yielded a discussion of the agents’ recent favorite projects.
Sherman is excited about the forthcoming Merits of Mischief (Aladdin, Apr.), first in a new middle-grade series from Tricia Rayburn (who is writing under the pen name T.R. Burns). The Siren trilogy author switched gears for her eighth book, choosing to write from the perspective of a boy who accidentally kills a teacher with an apple and is sent to what he thinks is a reform school. Turns out, the school is actually an academy where kids are trained to be effective troublemakers. Sherman described how the title “played with middle-grade conventions... but turned them on their heads.”
For Necarsulmer, Ghetto Cowboy (Candlewick), a 2011 novel by G. Neri with illustrations by Jesse Joshua Watson, is one of his favorite recent projects. He said it was like “Boyz n the Hood meets Young Guns.” Noting that Ghetto Cowboy is drawn from the lives of real urban cowboys, Necarsulmer added, “Good fiction reads like nonfiction.”
Another audience question brought up the topic of new media. Compared to the quality of an author’s manuscript, Sherman said that “apps are way down on the rung,” in terms of what draws attention from agents. She added that while agents are “keeping their fingers on the pulse” of new media, “writers and illustrators should not be focusing on that. Silverman also said that “enhanced e-books shouldn’t be discussed as parallel to print books,” because they represent such a different reading experience.
Discussing submission procedures, the agents noted such pet peeves as picture books written in a way that suggests the authors never read them aloud, and authors not communicating clearly with their agents regarding simultaneous submissions and their authorial aspirations (e.g., whipping out three picture-book projects after presenting themselves as YA writers).
As Sherman put it, the process of accepting a client and finding an editor and publisher for a particular work really all comes down to “matchmaking.” For the agents in these uncertain but exciting times, a deep connection with a manuscript remains essential. “If I don’t absolutely fall in love with it,” Sherman said, “I have to say no.”